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Sporting world shocked by charges against inspirational athlete Oscar Pistorius

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News that South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius had been charged with murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Thursday came as a shock to nearly everyone who had heard the runner’s inspirational story of his struggle to become the first double-amputee ever to compete at the Olympics.

Pistorius, now 26, was born without fibulas and and had to have his legs amputated below the knee at only eleven months old. That didn’t stop him from competing in rugby, tennis, and water polo while growing up in Pretoria, before being introduced to running in after suffering a knee injury.

Fueled by his competitive spirit and riding on his new racing “blades,” fitted for him by prosthetist Francois Vanderwatt, Pistorius went on to win gold in the 200m at the Paralympic Games in Athens only months after starting to race, and then finished sixth in at the 400m able-bodied national championships the next year.

He won the 100m, 200m, and 400m Paralympic world championships in 2006, and then set his sights on qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. One problem: Pistorius had a number of detractors, including world record holder Michael Johnson, who suggested that his disability was actually an advantage, since the runner raced on specially engineer carbon fiber limbs.

“I know Oscar well, and he knows my position; my position is that because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics that he wears it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors…

“Oscar sees no limits; he has no fear when competing against able-bodied athletes. So it is hard for people to understand and to accept when you start to talk about whether or not he may have the advantage.”

The IAAF, track’s governing body, agreed, and banned any device using springs, wheels, or any other device that might provide an advantage in 2007, marking Pistorius ineligible for the 2008 Games.

Pistorius eventually won a reprieve with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in April 2008, which, after a two-day hearing in Switzerland, determined that Pistorius held no advantage and was allowed to compete against able-bodied runners.

“Oscar’s done so much for Paralympic sport and I’m grateful for all the eyes he has opened to what Paralympic sport can be,” British Paralympic gold medal sprinter Johnnie Peacock, who started racing after seeing Pistorius on TV, told the London Telegraph.

The “Blade Runner,” as he’s now known, didn’t qualify for the Olympics in 2008, but was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people after winning the right to compete, and signed sponsorship deals with Oakley, Nike, Thierry Mugler, and running blade manufacturer Ossur, in all totaling nearly $5 million.

Now able to compete against the world’s best, Pistorius became the first double-amputee to win an able-bodied world championship medal when his 4×400 relay team took silver in Daegu in 2011. And despite failing to run the necessary Olympic “A” standard qualification time twice, the South African Olympic Committee announced last July 4 that Pistorius had been selected for the Olympic team for the 400m and 4x400m relay.

Two months later, on August 4, 2012, Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to compete at the Olympics. And better than that, he took second in his preliminary heat with a time of 45.44 seconds, a season best that put him into the semifinals.

“It just felt really magical,” Pistorius said. “If I could predict what it would feel like or imagine beyond my wildest dreams, this was probably 10 times that. To step out in front of a crowd this massive, it’s a mind-blowing experience,” he added. “I’ve had support in the last couple of days like I have never felt before.”

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Pistorius was knocked out in the semis, finishing eighth in the race. After the event, the South African symbolically exchanged racing bibs with Kirani James of Grenada, who eventually went on to win the gold.

“This whole experience was amazing… to step out here in an Olympic final is more than I could have ever hoped for,” Pistorius said after that race. “That opportunity to come here once again and finish today and not yesterday is a dream come true.”

The inspirational athlete was asked to carry the South African flag at the Olympics Closing Ceremony as a tribute to his struggle and success, and went on to earn two more Paralympic golds a month later.

Deena Kastor withdraws from Olympic marathon trials

Deena Kastor
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Deena Kastor won’t try to make history at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials on Saturday.

Kastor, 42 and the last U.S. woman to earn an Olympic marathon medal (bronze, 2004), will not contest the 26.2-mile race in Los Angeles due to a recent glute muscle strain.

“I was diligent in resting, but my glute just won’t settle down,” Kastor said in a USA Track and Field press release.

If Kastor, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in 2015, had finished in the top three at the trials in Los Angeles (live on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra on Saturday), she would have become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Kastor wasn’t thought to be a contender for the Rio Olympics until Oct. 11, when she clocked 2:27:47 at the Chicago Marathon. It marked her best time since her American record 2:19:36 at the 2006 London Marathon.

With Kastor out, the list of female contenders shrinks. That list still includes the top four women from the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon trials — Shalane Flanagan, Desi Linden, Kara Goucher and Amy Cragg.

Meb Keflezighi, 40, can become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner if he finishes in the top three in the men’s race Saturday.

U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Previews: Men | Women

Kenya banned athletes allege doping bribery

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EMBU, Kenya (AP) — Two Kenyan athletes serving four-year bans for doping at the 2015 World Track and Field Championships say the chief executive of Athletics Kenya, the country’s governing body for track and field, asked them each for a $24,000 bribe to reduce their suspensions.

Joy Sakari and Francisca Koki Manunga told The Associated Press that CEO Isaac Mwangi asked for the payment in an Oct. 16 meeting, but that they could not raise the money. They were then were informed of their four-year bans in a Nov. 27 email, but never filed a criminal complaint because, they say, they had no proof to back up their bribery accusation and also feared repercussions.

Mwangi dismissed the allegation as “just a joke,” denied ever meeting privately with the athletes and said Athletics Kenya has no power to shave time off athletes’ bans.

“We have heard stories, athletes coming and saying, ‘Oh, you know, I was asked for money,'” Mwangi said. “But can you really substantiate that?”

Sakari, a 400m runner, and Manunga, a hurdler, told AP they would be willing to testify to the ethics commission of the IAAF, the global governing body of athletics.

The commission already is investigating allegations that AK officials sought to subvert anti-doping in Kenya, solicited bribes and offered athletes reduced bans. The probe has led to the suspensions of AK’s president, Isaiah Kiplagat, a vice president, David Okeyo, and AK’s former treasurer, Joseph Kinyua.

Sharad Rao, a former director of prosecutions in Kenya who also has adjudicated cases for the Court of Arbitration for Sport, is leading the ethics investigation for the International Association of Athletics Federations. Sakari and Manunga’s decision to come forward could be a breakthrough, because Kenyan athletes have been unwilling to act as whistleblowers.

“There is obviously the reluctance on the part of the athletes to come forward,” Rao said. “They don’t want to stand out.”

As many as a half-dozen banned athletes have privately indicated to the IAAF commission that AK officials sought to extort them and that they feel their sanctions might have been less if they had paid bribes, Rao said.

AP’s interview with Sakari and Manunga is the first time Kenyan athletes have detailed such allegations publicly.

“That information would, of course, be very, very significant, very important for us,” Rao said.

Rao said he has been talking to at least one other athlete who may have been approached for a bribe, and that his first priority was to get responses from Kiplagat, Okeyo and Kinyua — all three of whom have flatly denied to him that they took or solicited bribes.

Sakari and Manunga, both police officers in Kenya, said Mwangi asked them for 2.5 million Kenyan shillings — or $24,000 — each.

“I told him I’ve never seen that much money in my life,” Manunga told AP. “Even if I sold everything, I wouldn’t be able to get together that amount of money.”

The athletes tested positive in August for furosemide, a diuretic banned because it can mask the use of forbidden performance-enhancers, and were sent home from the worlds in Beijing. They told AP the drug was sold to them by a chemist in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, who said it would alleviate side effects of supplements they were taking. The chemist testified in defense of the athletes to AK, saying he gave them furosemide to combat water-retention caused by the supplement.

Compared to doping cases involving other athletes, their four-year bans appear harsh. World Anti-Doping Agency rules classify furosemide as a so-called “specified substance,” distinguishing it from hardcore performance-enhancers like steroids or the blood-boosting hormone EPO.

For specified substances, IAAF rules allow for lesser bans of no more than two years, or even just a reprimand and no ban, if athletes can prove they weren’t at fault or negligent.

To impose a four-year ban, the rules require authorities to establish that athletes intentionally cheated. But AK appears to have discounted the chemist’s testimony. In the letter it sent to Manunga announcing her ban, AK said there was no “plausible explanation” for using furosemide and that the federation “can only infer” she took it intentionally as a masking agent.

Last year, Serbia’s athletics federation imposed a two-year ban on 800m runner Nemanja Kojic for the same substance. He can return to competition in 2017; Sakari and Manunga were banned until 2019.

They said they visited Mwangi’s first-floor office together, seeking news of their case. During that meeting, they said, he asked for the bribe, dangling the possibility of shaving time off their bans.

Both athletes say they are sure of the date of that meeting — Oct. 16 — because, they say, they went to the KCB bank together later that day to open accounts and deposit 600,000 Kenya shillings ($5,785) paid to each of them for being on Kenya’s team in the Bahamas.

“He was waiting for us to give him money, so that this ‘thing’ disappears,” Manunga said. “We left, kept quiet and later that’s when our names came out and we were told that we’ve been banned because we did not deliver that money.”

“He asked us if we could give him something. That’s what he said,” said Sakari. “He asked for money.”

Mwangi denied that he met privately with the athletes.

“Why we avoid those kinds of things is because we know athletes are fond of making any kind of claim,” he told AP.

“It is not possible to give anyone money to meddle with your case,” he added. “I will contact the athletes officially and I will ask the athletes to come, the two of them, and like I said they are police officers, so we will have to involve the police force.”

Soliciting a bribe is a crime in Kenya.

The athletes have told their story privately to the Professional Athletics Association of Kenya, an advocacy group of Kenyan runners. The association’s secretary, Julius Ndegwa, said Sakari and Manunga came to see him and a lawyer in January.

The athletes spoke to AP in an on-camera interview in Embu, a ramshackle town 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Nairobi where they were housed in police accommodation.

Sakari also raced at the 2012 London Olympics and 2009 Worlds. In Beijing, she competed under the name Zakary, but Sakari is her preferred spelling. She indicated that she is now done with athletics, because she will be 33 when her ban expires.

Manunga, 23, said she would have paid to return sooner to competition.

“For me, those four years are too many,” she said. “If I had the money, I’d have paid. But I didn’t have it. So I just left.”

MORE: Kenya marathon runner-up arrested for cheating in race